'The Bookshop': Film Review

Superficially nostalgic, but subtly contemporary.

Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson star in Isabel Coixet's adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's 1978 novel about a woman's struggles to bring a bit of literary culture to an English town that badly needs it.

If "restrained," "melancholy," “subtle” and “stereotypically English” are the qualifiers that spring to mind when you learn that Isabel Coixet’s latest is about a widow setting up a bookstore in a quiet coastal town in the 1950s, then you’re only getting half the story of The Bookshop. Its subversive undercurrent, embodied in fine performances by Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy, is what makes it really interesting.

Pretty faithful throughout to the Penelope Fitzgerald novel from which it’s sourced, and sustained by a cast which is well capable of suggesting the psychological subtlety of the original, The Bookshop shows that, for the moment at least, the uneven maverick Coixet is back in form. Initial box office in Spain has been positive, and the fact that there’s always a market somewhere for hand-crafted, quintessentially English fare — perhaps even more so in these troubled times — suggest that this one is unlikely just to sit there gathering dust.

Coixet has long been interested in women who take risks to do the right thing. This time it’s the turn of Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), 16 years a war widow, who fetches up in the seaside town of Hardborough in the county of Suffolk with the aim of setting up a bookshop in a rundown property, the Old House, which she’s bought. Florence's never-explicitly stated reason for wanting to do so is that she met her husband in a bookshop, an event fleetingly hinted at early on.

At one of those massively awkward, stilted dinner parties at which the English apparently excel, Florence encounters local bigwig Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson, working for the third time with Coixet), her hair plastered tight against her scalp, smoking evilly at windows, endlessly calculating. This is the kind of film in which the smilingly uttered words “why don’t you think it over?” actually mean “if you dare to challenge me, my dear, then I shall quite simply ruin your life." Violet wants to use the old house as an arts center; Apparently for no reason other than that she enjoys exercising her power, she will stop at nothing to achieve it, going so far as to pull strings in Parliament to fulfill her aim.

Local recluse and widow Mr. Brundish (a compellingly quiet and intense Nighy), around whom local gossip comically swirls, is sympathetic to Florence’s cause, sensing that Hardborough needs her. Brundish emerges from years of solitude into a brief, middle-aged flirtation with Florence which teeters elegantly on the edge of being an affair without actually becoming one.

As romances go, this is so exquisitely restrained that it makes Brief Encounter look like Debbie Does Dallas. Their trembling, murmured first interview is knockout stuff, two fine actors, both playing bereaved lovers, taking all the time they need and playing off one another to suggest an ocean of pain: the sigh emitted by Brundish after it will be echoed by audiences. “You make me believe once more in things I’d long forgotten,” he tells Florence, and he might even be talking about love. They meet only twice, but we wish it could have been more.

Florence also meets a feisty little girl, Christine (Honor Kneafsey), who helps her out at the shop, as well as the glistening-haired, clear-eyed Milo North — in the latter case, without any noticeable advancement of either character or plot. Though Lance has fun playing a bounder and cad of the first order, the script doesn’t particularly need him.

Like the novel, The Bookshop teems with ideas. Some are old-hat: we’ve regularly been reminded since Jane Austen, for example, that rural villages can be petty-minded, spiteful places. But both Fitzgerald’s novel and Coixet’s adaptation also have resonances for the 2000s, among them the question of how it is possible, in a world driven by gossip (read “fake news”) that books and reading can have become so devalued. “Thank you for introducing me to Ray Bradbury,” Brundish tells Florence, and indeed Fahrenheit 451’s subversive, free spirit (and less convincingly that of Lolita) can be felt throughout, suggesting that a world without books — in this case Hardborough — is a pretty nasty, ego-driven place to be. What a shame that we live there.

Mortimer follows the novel’s lead in portraying Florence as an intriguing mixture of social insecurity and quiet determination, driven in her pursuit of a dream that should be perfectly achievable but, thanks to moral and cultural Philistinism, is not. As the obstacles mount up, Florence starts to look like an oasis of sanity.

Classically structured and assembled as befits its subject, the film’s only concession to stylistic flamboyance comes when Brundish is seen reading to camera letters he’s sent to Florence. This may seem clumsy, but in a film which is so much about the power of the written word to stir us, it works very well, and gives Nighy a further opportunity to shine as Brundish, in his splendid isolation.

In a wonderfully apt touch, the voiceover is delivered by Julie Christie, who starred in Truffaut’s version of Fahrenheit 451. Often drawn directly from Fitzgerald’s novel, it does adds shade and context to some scenes, but is sometimes unnecessary. The same can be said of Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score, which is better during the melancholy sequences, but cliched when it’s striving to be perky. Some nuances are missing: Christine is probably too frightfully well spoken for the daughter of a working-class 1950s woman in an eastern English county, and indeed regional accents are lacking entirely. But visually, the attention to period detail from Marc Pou seems faultless.

Production companies: A Contracorriente Films, Diagonal TV, Zephyr Films, ONE TWO Films, Green Films
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Nighy, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance

Director-screenwriter: Isabel Coixet, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald
Producers: Jaume Banacolocha, Joan Bas, Adolfo Blanco, Sol Bondy, Chris Curling, Jamila Wenske
Executive producers: Manuel Monzon, Paz Recolons, Fernando Riera, Albert Sagales
Director of photography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Production designer: Marc Pou
Costume designer: Merce Paloma
Editor: Bernat Aragones
Music: Alfonso de Vilallonga
Casting: Jeremy Zimmermann
Sales: Celsius

112 minutes